Number of children in care increasing at greater rate in Wales than England

Mark Drakeford finds rescuers rather than repairers have the upper hand in dealing with problem families

A deep and enduring dispute characterises public policy towards children and families who come to the attention of the welfare services. On the one hand there are the ‘rescuers’, those who believe that children from flawed families are best removed from them, early and decisively, in order to be offered a fresh and better start in life elsewhere. On the other hand, are the ‘repairers’, those who believe that families are best placed to care for their own and that state support ought to be directed towards keeping families together, rather than splitting them apart.

The ‘rescuers’ have been firmly in charge for a decade and a half. Year on year, since 1997, the rate at which children have been removed from their own families, and into local authority care, has been rising. In Wales, the rate was above that of England at the start of the period, and the gap has widened further over the whole period. A child in Wales is now almost one and a half times as likely to be taken into local authority care than a child in England.

Looked After Children 

This is the first in a two part series investigating the ever-increasing number of children taken away from their families and into the care of local authorities in Wales. Tomorrow’s article examines ways the question might be addressed. On Wednesday Mark Drakeford will raise the issue in a Short Debate in the National Assembly.

The rate of increase slowed in the middle of the first decade of the present century. However, the Baby P scandal of 2008 produced a dramatic acceleration which has continued ever since. The rate of increase in Wales has been nearly six times that which has occurred across our border, over the same time frame. Of course, there will always be circumstances in which deliberate cruelty or wilful neglect will mean that children will need to be removed to avoid harm and suffering and nothing in this article suggests otherwise.  However, the escalating rate of removal suggests that something different is driving change in the system. Table 1 below sets out the growth in children in local authority (LA) care, over the past decade.

Table 1: Percentage growth in children looked after by local authorities in Wales, per 10,000

Year

All Ages

< 1

1 – 4

5 – 9

10 – 15

16 – 17

(England)

2003

64

50

60

60

70

64

55

2004

66

50

61

62

75

65

55

2005

68

65

59

61

80

64

55

2006

71

60

61

62

83

72

55

2007

73

56

62

61

87

82

55

2008

73

58

58

61

89

84

54

2009

75

63

61

59

91

90

55

2010

83

81

73

66

97

94

58

2011

86

78

80

69

97

102

59

There are three essential ways in which this growth in numbers can be explained. It could be due to an additional inflow into the system, it could be explained by a slow-down in the rate at which looked after children are moved on from local authority care, or it could be combination of both. Table Two, below, sets out the numbers of children coming into the system for each year, over the same period.

Table 2: Numbers of children starting to be looked after by local authorities in Wales

Year

Total children

(10–15

16–17

18+)

Incoming

Outgoing

2003

4,200

1,655

500

30

1,650

2004

4,315

1,750

515

20

1,715

1,600

2005

4,400

1,845

515

25

1,710

1,625

2006

4,535

1,905

575

10

1,675

1,540

2007

4,640

1,960

655

15

1,540

1,435

2008

4,630

1,965

680

10

1,445

1,455

2009

4,705

1,975

710

15

1,640

1,565

2010

5,160

2,070

720

5

2,025

1,570

2011

5,415

2,080

785

5

1,880

1,625

2012

5,725

2,115

850

10

1,970

1,660

Taken together, the tables demonstrate a number of key points. First, they suggest that the explanation for a rising proportion of looked after children in the earlier part of the period (up to 2008) lies in a reduction in the rate of flow out of the system. Both numbers of incoming and outgoing children are falling, but there are fewer outgoing, so those who are looked after, are so for longer periods. This is further implied by the rise in older looked after children. There is a 64 per cent rise in the number of children between 16-17 looked after by LAs across the whole period.

Then, in the latter part of the period, the ‘Baby Peter effect’ had a dramatic impact on children being drawn into the system. A study by Cafcass, in England, published earlier this year, refers to the “unprecedented rise” in local authority care applications, “since the publication of the Baby Peter Serious Care Review in November 2008”. Not only are receptions into care being made in greater numbers, but “local authorities are making applications at an earlier stage of their involvement with children”.

Cafcass conclude that the Baby Peter effect has produced “a fundamental shift in social work practice”, and one which is set to continue into the future. The figures above demonstrate a similar increase in Wales. The pattern of the earlier period – lower intake, but longer stays – is changed by a huge increase in the intake. There was a 40 per cent increase in the intake between 2008 (figures were published in March, before the review) and 2010, the first full year after the review. As one would expect in this latter period, with more children in the system there are more children going out. But although there have been year-on-year increases in outflow, they do not match the increase intake.

Are these increases uniform across Wales, and are there other drivers apart from the  ‘Baby Peter effect’? In England, Paul Bywaters has investigated the variation in the rate of looked after children between LAs, and the correlation this rate and the Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) score for each LA. His figures show that there is a 7:1 ratio between the LAs with the highest and lowest rates of looked after children (Manchester 142 children per 10,000. and Wokingham 20). He concluded that there is a strong relationship between deprivation and children’s services’ outcomes (that is, looked after children), and that deprivation is the central factor in explaining variations between looked after children rates across LAs. As he put it:

“…inequalities in children’s services’ outcomes are not a post code lottery. Nor are they just unfortunate. They represent the impact of systemic social inequality on children’s life chances.”

In Wales a similar pattern can be observed. The comparable figures for the variations in rates of Looked After Children are laid out in Table 3.

Table 3: Looked after children rates by local authority, 2011

Local Authority

Looked After Children

Population

0-17

Rate per 10,000 children

Monmouthshire

80

18,841

42

Flintshire

160

32,635

49

Wrexham

160

29,055

55

Isle of Anglesey

80

13,515

59

Pembrokeshire

155

25,104

62

Ceredigion

80

12,770

63

Powys

170

26,203

65

Carmarthenshire

260

37,614

69

Cardiff

520

70,850

73

Vale of Glamorgan

200

27,236

73

Gwynedd

175

23,678

74

Conwy

165

21,944

75

Caerphilly

300

39,533

76

Newport

285

33,235

86

Denbighshire

175

19,524

90

Blaenau Gwent

130

14,336

91

Rhondda Cynon Taf

550

50,095

110

Bridgend

325

28,901

112

Swansea

580

46,782

124

Merthyr Tydfil

165

12,554

131

Neath Port Talbot

410

28,209

145

Torfaen

290

19,819

146

Wales

5,415

632,433

86

Overall inequality of Looked After Children rates by LAs in Wales is less than in England (at a ratio of just a little over 3:1 comparing Monmouthshire to Torfaen). But this due to the fact that nowhere in Wales sees rates at such low levels as some places in England. The lowest rates (Monmouthshire) are twice the lowest rates observed in England (42:20), and there are two Welsh LAs (Neath Port Talbot and Torfaen) with rates significantly higher than the rest, and higher than any rates recorded in an English LA. This is further bourne out when it is considered that the number of Looked After Children per 10,000 across the whole of England is 59 (Bywaters’ figure), whereas in Wales it is almost half as much again at 86.

But does Bywaters’ finding hold within Welsh Local Authorities? The data is not available to repeat Bywaters’ study precisely, but an analogous method, derived from the Welsh Index of Multiple Deprivation demonstrates that there is a clear correlation observable in Wales too. This is shown in Table 4 where a clear correlation emerges between the relative deprivation status of  local authorities and their ranking in the rate of looked after children.

Table 4: Looked after children rank and WIMD rank by local authority

Local Authority

Children Looked After per 10,000

LA Looked After rank

LA WIMD Rank

Monmouthshire

42

1

2

Flintshire

49

2

6

Wrexham

55

3

11

Isle of Anglesey

59

4

7

Pembrokeshire

62

5

5

Ceredigion

63

6

1

Powys

65

7

3

Carmarthenshire

69

8

9

Cardiff

73

9

17

Vale of Glamorgan

73

10

10

Gwynedd

74

11

4

Conwy

75

12

8

Caerphilly

76

13

16

Newport

86

14

19

Denbighshire

90

15

12

Blaenau Gwent

91

16

21

Rhondda Cynon Taf

110

17

20

Bridgend

112

18

15

Swansea

124

19

14

Merthyr Tydfil

131

20

22

Neath Port Talbot

145

21

18

Torfaen

146

22

13

The evidence thus firmly demonstrates that Welsh children are being removed from their families at an accelerating rate, and at a rate which has diverged sharply from that in England. Moreover, such children are not drawn at random from the Welsh population. The risk of being taken into local authority care is strongly correlated with poverty and deprivation. Moreover, the pattern is self-reinforcing, as council budgets are used up, almost entirely, in responding to the needs of those already caught up it the system, with very little left over to invest in helping families to stay together. It is to that possibility that tomorrow’s article will turn.

Mark Drakeford is Labour AM for Cardiff West.

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